Last season Nikola Jokic established himself as one of the premier young big men in the NBA. His averages of 19.2 points on 58.7 percent shooting from the field and 34.2 percent from three, 10.9 rebounds and 5.2 assists per game after Dec. 15 — the date when he became the Denver Nuggets starting center, cemented him alongside Karl-Anthony Towns, Kristaps Porzingis, and Joel Embiid as one of the most intriguing up-and-coming, versatile big men across the league.
And somehow, Jokic did most of his damage last year without a reliable three-point shot. He converted just 32.4 percent of his attempts from distance across 73 games during his sophomore season and tailed off after the All-Star break when he hit just 26 percent of his threes. Jokic worked tirelessly on his shot this summer across the Atlantic back in his hometown of Sombor, Serbia, and it’s paying off. Through 11 games Jokic is shooting 18-41 (44 percent) from beyond the arc.
“I shot like a million shots this summer. Threes and twos and all kinds of shots, transition shots,” Jokic said from the Nuggets’ locker room after registering a career-high 41 points, 12 of which came on triples in Denver’s 112-104 win over the Brooklyn Nets. “I think I did a good job of working this summer. I kind of miss it because it was in my hometown and I had my godfather working with me and he was yelling at me. I kind of miss that. I think I did a really good job this summer.”
Jokic can’t quite hear his godfather yelling “Make it! Make it! Make it!” in his ear when he’s on the floor, a song and dance routine he gladly reenacted for a group of assembled reporters in the Nuggets’ locker room, but the proof is in the pudding.
The 22-year-old is a more confident shooter and his attempts are up too. Jokic is taking roughly 1.5 more threes per game this year than he did last season.
“So maybe this summer is paying off or whatever,” Jokic continued.
There are a few reasons why Jokic is shooting more threes. First off, Paul Millsap, who Denver signed this offseason to a lucrative three-year, $90 million contract, usually occupies the strongside block and its pushed Jokic out to the perimeter more often. Secondly, his shot feels better. And lastly, teams are sagging off him more, trying to anticipate one of his highlight-worthy assists.
“He’s got to take what the defense gives him, number one and right now teams are playing down the floor and he’s picking-and-popping and he’s got all the room in the world,” Nuggets coach Michael Malone said. “He can shoot the ball or we can play a two-man game on the backside and that’s something he does very very well. The way he’s shooting the ball right now, hey, keep on shooting it.”
Another benefactor to Jokic’s prowess from distance is his teammates. Jokic stretching the defense out to the three-point line opens up loads of space for Millsap, Will Barton, and others.
“When I got in the game and he was still in with me, they were so worried about him I was getting free layups to the rim,” said Barton who scored 17 points on 7-15 shooting against Brooklyn. “I was coming off drags and hitting threes because they know he’s a major threat out there. We try to tell him ‘hey, be aggressive you’re one of the best players in our league and when you’re playing aggressive, that makes our whole team so much better.'”
“It opens up space,” Millsap said about the threat of Jokic’s three-point shot. “And with his ability to pass the basketball, guys got to play on him and not off of him.”
After Denver’s offense struggled out of the gate this season, they’ve quietly crept up to the 15th-most efficient unit on that end of the floor. That’s not where the Nuggets want to be or where they’ll finish — they’ll be higher — but it’s still early in the season and sample sizes are small. Scoring one more basket per game at this stage in the year would vault Denver’s offense in the league’s top-10.
The win over Brooklyn wasn’t pretty. The Nets were coming off their first road win of the season Monday night in Phoenix, flew into Denver early Tuesday morning and didn’t hold shootaround. Brooklyn was also without three of their usual big men in Rondae Hollis-Jefferson, Trevor Booker, and Jarrett Allen. Still, the Nuggets managed to tally 112 points but did so on less than 50 percent shooting and only hit 26.5 percent of their threes — far from the typically efficient Denver offense that many are used to.
Yet, the threat Jokic poses from three is a new and different element to Denver’s offense that wasn’t there a year ago. Will it stick? We’ll see, but Jokic won’t stop shooting.
“If I’m open, I’m going to shoot it when I feel it and when I feel good,” Jokic said. “We’re going to see how I’m going to feel tomorrow or in the next game.”